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Samhain: The History of the Celtic Fire Festival

These days, people tend to use Samhain and Halloween interchangeably. And, while they are very close together, and while Halloween did adopt many Samhain rituals, they are NOT the same holiday! Let’s briefly discuss the difference between the two and why they are so commonly confused.

The History

In Celtic Ireland (some 2,000 or so years ago), Samhain was incredibly important in many ways. In fact, many pagans and magickal practitioners still celebrate it every year; myself included. But what is it and how did ancient cultures celebrate it?

Samhain takes place at the middle point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. From a practical standpoint, this meant our ancestors were preparing for the longer nights and colder months. It was/is also considered to be a time when the “veil is thin.” Or, when the fabric between the physical and spiritual realms is thin. This makes this time ideal for communication with the spiritual realm, as well as acquiring help from passed loved ones in matters of ritual practice and magickal manifestation.

Fire was/is a key component in Samhain rituals. Historically, Celts would light a large fire and, while setting their intentions for the year, would cast bones into said fire. Over the years, these “bone fires” were shortened to “bonfires.” But that’s not the only use of flame in Samhain magic. Pumpkins, turnips, and other bulbous vegetables were carved with scary faces and lit with candles, as a way of warding off malevolent spirits. This became our well known jack-O-lanterns today.

Even our beloved Halloween costumes stem from Samhain traditions. Much like candle lit pumpkins, scary costumes were used to “trick” spirits into thinking humans were one of their own. You wouldn’t want to leave the house without your disguise, lest you be the target of some trickery yourself!

So, how did Samhain become Halloween?

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III instated November 1st as All Saints Day. Reasons why are up for debate, but the general consensus amongst historians is that the Catholic Church was trying to Christianize pagan holidays, as a way of making the conversion from paganism to Christianity easier. (Before this time, paganism was the most common religion in many areas and the Catholic Church was working hard to change this.)

“Hallow” meaning “Holy,” and “Eve” meaning “before” is where we get the name “All Hallows Eve.” Or, the day before the “Holy Day” or “All Saints Day.” Over time, this became “Halloween.”

You will see examples of this adoption of pagan practices in many Christian holidays, including Christmas and Easter. But Halloween is the most well known. There are many ways you can celebrate Samhain, even if you don’t have access to a fire… Creating an altar for passed loved ones is one of the most common, as well as any of the Halloween traditions you already celebrate. Remember that this is a time for manifestation and clean slates!

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